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Pinellas Education Foundation's comments draw ire from union, School Board leaders

The labor contract is flawed. The school district needs to bargain harder with the teachers union. The business community can help.

With those recent statements, the Pinellas Education Foundation stirred up some hard feelings.

Both the union president and a School Board member said the foundation crossed the line. Meanwhile, the board attorney was concerned enough to recommend that the board define the foundation's role in crafting a new contract.

"They shouldn't be involved at all," said member Janet Clark, who has clashed with the foundation in the past. She referenced the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has given $100 million to the Hillsborough County School District. "I think they want to be a mini Gates Foundation," she said. "I think they want to be the Pinellas Gates Foundation."

The harsh words come after two events — a May 13 retreat for the foundation board of directors and a May 23 meeting between top foundation officials and the St. Petersburg Times editorial board.

At the former, foundation members crafted recommendations on a suite of issues, including a critique of the contract between the district and the teachers union, which is set to be revised. At the latter, foundation chairman Craig Sher said the group has sent a business consultant to meet with superintendent Julie Janssen and board members to help the district in contract negotiations.

Sher suggested the district has not been as effective as the union in negotiating a contract in its favor. The business consultant is Alex McKenna, head of the St. Petersburg-based McKenna International. His career has included labor relations.

"The school district should have the most competent professional representation in negotiating this," said Sher, chairman and president of the Sembler Co. "The union is very, very professional, they're very good at what they do. And I think the district and the School Board need to be equally or more so in bargaining the agreement. And I don't know that they have over the years."

Among other perceived shortcomings, Sher pointed to how little control principals have over hiring and firing.

He said the foundation asked a group of Pinellas teachers what percentage of teachers should be fired for poor performance — and the answer was 1 percent. But when a group of Pinellas principals was asked the same thing, they said 20 percent. "That's quite a disconnect," he said.

The foundation is led by a who's who of local business leaders. Over the past 25 years, it has raised $110 million. It backs student scholarships and teacher grants. It supports economics education and more vocational training.

Most of the time, it plays a background role, but tensions do occasionally surface. In 2008, the foundation issued a "white paper" that pointed to the district's unimpressive graduation rate in making the case for more power for principals.

After Sher's May 23 comments were posted on the Gradebook, the Times education blog, readers logged in 160 responses.

"This is very much overreaching," said teachers union president Kim Black. "I don't believe it's their role to insert themselves in the bargaining process."

Board attorney Jim Robinson e-mailed board members after the Gradebook post, saying "the active approach the foundation is taking in the collective bargaining process is problematic."

The group's representatives "said they would work in the background as a source of expertise in advising on revisions to the contract language," he wrote. "What occurred at the retreat was something quite different, as was the presentation just made to the Times editorial board."

District and union officials were set to bargain on Tuesday. Black, who is on the foundation board, said she has asked to meet with Sher and foundation president Terry Boehm.

It remains to be seen whether the School Board will discuss the matter further.

Board member Robin Wikle said she met with the foundation's consultant. He offered advice, but so do people who see her in the grocery store, she said.

"They can advise us all they want," she said of the foundation. "In the end, it's up to us."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Pinellas Education Foundation's comments draw ire from union, School Board leaders 05/31/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 4:43pm]
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